Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Where Reading is the Coolest Thing

Allison Varnes writes a cautionary tale about censorship for young readers

“You’re going to read a lot about me and the things I’ve done,” says twelve-year-old June Harper at the beginning of Allison Varnes’s new middle-grade novel, Property of the Rebel Librarian. “So take your time. I’ll just be sitting here, grounded for all eternity, while you read about the moments when everything fell together and apart. They’re all here. Every last one.”

Photo: Belinda Keller

A seventh-grader at Dogwood Middle School, June is an avid reader who loves spending time with the school’s librarian, Ms. Bradshaw. But when June’s parents confiscate her library copy of The Makings of a Witch, deeming it “too scary,” they set in motion events that June can scarcely believe. Soon Ms. Bradshaw is suspended; two-thirds of the books in the school library have been removed for containing “profanity, drugs, violence, rock/rap music, witchcraft, drinking, smoking, or rebellion of any kind”; there’s a new group on campus calling itself the Student Club for Appropriate Reading (or SCAR); and teachers warn students not to be caught on school grounds with unapproved reading material or they will face severe consequences.

June expected to spend the year hanging out with her best friend, playing flute in the school marching band, and flirting with her eighth-grade crush, but all that changes when she finds herself the victim of blatant and widespread censorship. Adding insult to injury, her parents raid her room and take away her own personal books, keeping them until they can determine whether they are “quality reading material,” according to her father.

That’s when June walks to school by a different route and stumbles upon a Little Free Library in a nearby neighborhood. It turns out to be a jackpot of banned books: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; The Lightning Thief; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; Brown Girl Dreaming-the supply seems endless.

After adding a false bottom to her backpack, June begins transporting the books to school for distribution to like-minded students. As the contraband book supply draws hungry readers to her side, June makes new friends and finds herself in the midst of a quiet mutiny. “This is no longer the same Dogwood Middle,” she observes. “It’s an alternate reality where reading is the coolest thing you can do and I, June Harper, am the leader of the cool kids-of the rebellion. I’m sure I’ll wake up any minute now and everything will be back to the way it used to be.” As more and more students-friends and foes-figure out June’s secret, she won’t have long to wait.

Allison Varnes earned a Ph.D. in education from the University of Tennessee; in Property of the Rebel Librarian she has written a cautionary tale especially appropriate for young readers with a passion for books. If the adults in the novel seem a tad over-the-top, they serve to heighten the contrast between freedom and censorship that Varnes wants to illustrate, and they demonstrate the way repressive ideologies tend to escalate.

A former teacher writing about a topic that is obviously close to her heart, Varnes includes lists that direct readers to all the books mentioned in the novel, just in case they wish to follow June’s lead. As the Rebel Librarian herself proudly proclaims, “All I know is, they don’t want me to read it, so I’m gonna. Every last book I can find.”

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